The question concerning the relationship between faith and politics is one that has arrested the attention of many an American. But it is during election seasons, particularly presidential election seasons, that it assumes a larger than usual importance in the American consciousness. It is during this time that candidates exhaust themselves explaining the respects in which their religious convictions inform their political convictions.
Religion and politics, though conceptually distinct activities, do indeed intersect in all manner of ways. Such encounters are much more frequently than not contentious, and sometimes—as in the present case of President Barack Obama’s confrontation with the Catholic Church—they can be downright acrimonious.
In focusing on this episode, we are able to clearly discern the intimate nature of the connection between “religious liberty” and liberty generally, faith and culture, faith and politics, in American life.
The Obama Administration and the Catholic Church
A couple of weeks ago, while attending mass at my local parish, the priest read from a letter written by the Arch Bishop of our diocese. The subject of the letter was the Health and Human Services Department’s requirement that Catholic institutions provide “free” contraceptives to their employees.
My Bishop, along with Catholic clergy and laity around the country, insisted that Catholics could not and would not comply with such a law, for inasmuch as it both infringed upon Catholics’ “religious liberty” and coerced them to act in violation of their “consciences,” it was unjust.
Although President Obama later announced that Catholic institutions would be exempted from this demand, that only insurance companies would be legally compelled to comply with it, the truth of the matter is that health care insurers will have no economically viable option but to ultimately shift the costs of making these provisions onto the employer—i.e. the Catholic Church. Obama, that is, isn’t making any concessions. He is simply playing the proverbial shell game.
Thus, the position of the Catholic Church vis-à-vis Obamacare has not in the least bit altered.
This episode speaks to a range of issues the breadth of which the chattering class, as far as I can determine, has yet to appreciate. This controversy, as much as any, readily reveals the multiple ways in which faith and politics, the public and the private, relate to one another.
An Issue of Liberty
Partisans on all sides of this issue tend to frame it in terms of a question of “religious liberty.” I beg to differ. Those who speak thus, like those who speak of “economic liberty,” “positive rights,” “negative rights,” and the like, speak confusedly. What is at issue here is nothing more or less than liberty itself.
The liberty which, as Americans, we claim to prize may very well be a dispensation from God. I, for one, thank God regularly for it. But it is something that comes to us directly from the broad dispersal of power and authority of which our constitutional arrangements consist. To put it more simply, our liberty is comprised of a complex of liberties implied by the federal design that those who framed and ratified the Constitution imposed upon the United States government. Such explicit “freedoms” as are found in the Bill of Rights and those that are implicit elsewhere throughout the Constitution are the obverse of the federal government’s obligations—namely, its obligations to refrain from undermining its federal character by usurping those “powers” that are reserved to the states.
It has been a long, long time since the federal government has been a genuinely federal government. Still, it is critical that we appreciate the nature of liberty before we proceed to talk about “religious” liberty and the like. “Religious liberty” is simply the liberty to practice religion. Because our system of government forbids any person or group from acquiring a monopoly on authority and power, individual Americans are permitted to engage in a staggering array of mutually incompatible pursuits of their own choosing. Religious activity is just one of these engagements.
In short, what this means is that when the government undercuts the liberty of some Americans to pursue ends of a religious nature, it undercuts the liberty of all Americans to pursue ends of any nature. Conversely, whenever the government impedes the exercise of liberty for any ends, it impedes the exercise of liberty for religious ends.
This being so, that Catholic institutions will be compelled under Obamacare to subsidize products to which they are opposed is something that should elicit every bit as much outrage from every liberty-loving American as it has elicited from the most orthodox of Catholic clerics. At the same time, however, Catholics should have been as indignant over the fact that for decades and decades, Americans of all backgrounds have been coerced by a gargantuan federal government to subsidize all manner of practices to which they have been opposed.
Truth be told, not only is it the case that the Church has been silent; it has actually demanded an ever more intrusive federal government.
The Quest for ‘Social Justice’
This last point brings me to my present one.
“Be careful what you ask for, because you just might get it.” There is a reason that this is an old saying: there is no small measure of truth in it. It is indeed more than a bit ironic that the very same Catholic Church that for decades has been calling for “social justice” is now reaping what it has sowed.
The demand for “social justice” is a demand for an ever expansive government. More specifically, the demand for “social justice” is a demand for an activist government, the kind of government possessed of a large concentration of power sufficient to confiscate the resources of some—“the Haves”—so as to “redistribute” them to others—“the Have Nots.”
“Social justice” is radically incompatible with the Constitutional Republic bequeathed to us by our Founders. What they referred to as a Republic is what the conservative theorist Michael Oakeshott characterized as a “civil association,” an association whose members are related to one another in terms, not of some grand purpose to pursue, but laws to be observed. These laws neither specify actions in which the associates (citizens) are to engage nor do they dispense substantive satisfactions for them to enjoy. Rather, the laws are “adverbial,” as Oakeshott put it, in that they assert conditions for the associates of civil association to fulfill while engaging in their self-chosen pursuits.
In these respects, laws are like grammatical rules. The latter do not prescribe what is to be said. But whatever it is we say, if it is to be decipherable, if it is to gain a hearing, it must conform to the conditions of our language’s grammar. Similarly, only those actions are permissible that satisfy the conditions posited by the laws.
An association committed to “social justice” is most certainly not a civil association. It is not a Constitutional Republic. It is what Oakeshott called an “enterprise association.” In an enterprise association, the government is expected to “lead” its subjects into a Promised Land of one kind or another, a new dispensation in which some ideal condition is realized. In this case, the case of “social justice,” the ideal is a condition in which material goods achieve a more equal distribution.
The problem, though, is that in a Constitutional Republic, a civil association, there is no place for any schemes of “social justice,” for the latter is a purpose to which all others must ultimately be subordinated. That is, the call for “social justice” is the call for citizens to devote—or, more precisely, be made to devote—at least some of their resources in time, energy, and property to the fulfillment of this one over arching purpose. The call for “social justice” is the call for less individuality, less liberty, and more government.
Yet in a civil association there is no purpose, grand or otherwise, that citizens are compelled to pursue. And the federal character with which the Framers of our government originally invested it precludes the pursuit of “social justice” for which the Catholic Church and others have been relentlessly calling for decades.
This election season, perhaps even more so than during seasons past, promises a fairly salient role for religion. President Obama’s controversial health care law has insured this. For the first time in a long time Catholics and those of other faiths are acutely aware of the precarious nature of liberty (and “religious” liberty). Obamacare is just now beginning to reap what it sowed. To paraphrase Obama’s former pastor and “spiritual mentor” of over twenty years, Obamacare’s “chickens are coming home to roost.”